Roadmap 2013: To each her own, in product and in design

“Everything is design. Everything!” graphic artist Paul Rand famously declared, and it never felt more true than at our Roadmap 2013 design conference in San Francisco. From hardware to software, from our dependent relationships with robots to our dating relationships with other humans, and from industrial design to our underwear, the companies at Roadmap emphasized how design infiltrates our everyday lives in so many different ways.

Design is not new, but it has never felt so good. That’s because although design is broad in application, it’s becoming more personal when it comes to our individual experiences. Designers must also be empaths: Through observation, data and feedback, they figure out what we want and need, and that’s specific to the product and the person it serves.

Perhaps RISD President John Maeda illustrated the situation best when he discussed how Moore’s Law — the idea that technology gets both better and cheaper on a regular and predictable basis — doesn’t apply to all facets of design. While more might be preferable in the case of cookies, he said, it’s not when it comes to folding laundry. How did that concept come to play in the broad array of designs at Roadmap? Well, it’s different in each situation. Here are some examples that show how design thinking differs, creating experiences that are as varied as the people who want them.

  • Maps: According to Google Maps UX designer Jonah Jones, zooming out from a map requires making choices about which labels to show, lest they run together on the map. Instead of picking the most popular or the biggest sites on a map, Jones wants that map to tailor its appearance to each person based on a host of other information about their preferences and lives.  “When we combine the location with the other data we have, we can actually build a new map for every purpose or every location — a very specific map that no one has ever seen and won’t be there again because it was just created for this one purpose,” he said.
  • Money: Jack Dorsey wants to improve the experience of something that can traditionally be very stressful: the transaction of money. That’s why he designed Square from the perspective of buyers, not sellers, making design decisions so that buyers can enjoy the feeling of the transaction (despite, you know, having to spend money). “One of the framings that we got into was that we are all buyers,” he said. Making a seamless transaction, he said, is better for everyone involved “because that actually impacts the time that I spend in line or the time it takes to get the cappuccino that I just ordered.”
  • Dating: Tinder CEO Sean Rad aims for an “organic” experience from online dating; a process many would argue has little to do with the natural rules of attraction. He believes Tinder’s glanceable user interface, which lets users quickly decide whether they’re interested in someone or not, actually makes dating more natural. “Tinder is all about capturing the signals that we give out on a daily basis,” Rad said. “Whether we’re walking down the street or we’re in a room, we’re sort of subconsciously looking at people and saying, ‘Yes, no, yes, no,’ but those signals are being thrown away.”
  • Photos: Since it was bought by Facebook last year, and since its monthly active users have grown from 30 million to 150 million, Instagram now has to rely heavily on data to find people the “emotional” and visual experience they really want to see. Co-founder Kevin Systrom said that hashtag and user searches are no longer enough to ensure those experiences. Systrom said Instagram wants to surface users with similar niche interests, even if they didn’t tag those on photos, as well as to “surface moments you are near” in order to expand the ways in which users relate to their photo-sharing experience.
  • Clothing: True & Co. Founder and CEO Michelle Lam rejects mass-market shopping for an experience that is tailored to each woman. Using data from her online bra-shopping site and its attendant questionnaire, True & Co. learned that women have 6,000 specific body types. To account for that array, the company launched its own line of lingerie with the intent of accommodating all those body types, as well as both explicit and implicit preferences.
  • Driving: The environment may be the first consideration for people who buy Tesla Motors’ electric Model S, but according to Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen, they seek out its products for an emotional connection to the car as well. That’s why he’s designed the cars to be welcoming, extending their handles as the driver nears. “It’s the first experience you have and it needs to be incredibly memorable,” von Holzhausen said.

These were just a few of the many examples of how design is becoming better by considering the exigencies of the product itself and the people experiencing them. For a recap of everything we experienced at Roadmap 2013, visit our live coverage page, which has blog posts and video for each of the sessions.